Games for Learning and Learning Transfer

Games for Learning and Learning Transfer

Gearóid Ó. Súilleabháin (Cork Institute of Technology, Co. Cork, Ireland) and Julie-Ann Sime (Lancaster University, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61520-879-1.ch007
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Research findings are at best mixed with regard to the effectiveness of computer and video games in promoting learning transfer or learning, but much of this research makes use of the same unsuccessful methods of classic transfer experiments which offered research subjects limited initial practice in the learning to be transferred. Learning transfer however, like expertise, may need to be based on extended practice, an idea supported by studies of habitual or expert game players and recent non-game related developments in transfer research. Practice however must be joined to a certain kind of game complexity and cognitive or experiential game fidelity before deep learning and instances of significant transfer can be facilitated. Implications of these transfer conditions for the design of games for transfer are discussed as well as the need for research with regard to the various learning processes underlying the game-play behaviour of expert and habitual gamers.
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Research into learning transfer, broadly, relates to the influence of prior learning on new contexts of learning or performance. In its classic conceptualisation transfer involves the use of learning gained in one context, or setting, in a second subsequent context or setting. Ever since the formal introduction of the concept of learning transfer in 1901 in a series of papers by Edward E. Thorndike and Robert Sessions Woodworth, the concept has been controversial (1901a, 1901b, 1901c). Many studies and experiments have failed to facilitate transfer responses in subjects, even when, in many cases, the odds seemed to be very much stacked in favour of its occurrence (Detterman, 1996).

In this chapter the older tradition of transfer research is linked to more recent research into and development of games for learning. An argument is made that many of the concerns of researchers and other stakeholders in the emerging ‘serious games’ industry relate directly, if not explicitly, to the question of learning transfer. Games, it is argued towards the end of this piece, might also represent a useful environment within which to study some outstanding issues with regard to learning transfer. Games, for instance, offer affordances for empirical research simply not obtainable in more traditional learning environments–not least in the ability to use usability software and methods to closely monitor, capture and analyse a range of game-world and real-world actions and reactions.

Research findings, however, are at best mixed in their conclusions with regard to the pedagogical or transfer effectiveness of games, but, in another link between games for learning and learning transfer, many of these studies may be said to make use of the same unsuccessful methodologies of classic ‘in vitro’ transfer experiments in which research subjects, after only a limited exposure or practice, are prompted to demonstrate transfer into a new experimental setting. We suggest that one of the key reasons this approach has not tended to produce transfer is that transfer, like expertise, needs to be based on extended and perhaps considerable practice. Indeed, studies of habitual or expert computer and video game players do seem to provide encouraging results with regard to the ‘transfer power’ of games. Based on this and other evidence we propose three key necessary conditions for transfer: extended practice; game complexity; and cognitive or experiential fidelity. Together these key conditions provide the central structure and concerns of the chapter. First, however, some context is offered with regard to the history of research into transfer, its importance, and its relationship as both a phenomenon and concept to the use of computer and video games for learning.

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